Historian Bernard Lewis: Democracy in the Middle East could lead to illiberal governments like Nazi Germany

Steven Nelson Associate Editor
Font Size:

Historian Bernard Lewis, 94, discussed the ongoing wave of anti-government protests across the Middle East in an interview published Friday in the Jerusalem Post.

Lewi expressed skepticism of the emergence of secular democracy in Egypt, and said that Western political systems may lead to disaster in Arab countries that have long been ruled by autocrats.

“I don’t know how one could get the impression that the Muslim Brotherhood is relatively benign unless you mean relatively as compared with the Nazi party,” Lewis said.

“In genuinely fair and free elections, [the Muslim parties] are very likely to win and I think that would be a disaster,” Lewis said of Egypt. He suggested that a more gradual transformation starting with local political institutions would be preferable.

Lewis described contemporary authoritarian regimes as “a result of modernization.” Historical understanding of Arab societies suggests the potential for a less fundamentalist Arab region, though the historian stressed that he studied the past, not the future.

“The pre-modern regimes were much more open, much more tolerant. You can see this from a number of contemporary descriptions. And the memory of that is still living.”

Lewis’ skepticism of immediate democratization includes the Palestinian territories. “I don’t see elections, Western-style, as the answer to the problem,” said Lewis. “I see it rather as a dangerous aggravation of a problem.”

“The Western-style election is part of a very distinctively Western political system, which has no relevance at all to the situation in most Middle Eastern countries. It can only lead to one direction, as it did in Germany, for example,” Lewis said.